Has Silicon Valley made it impossible for us to listen?

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Author, Ximena Vengoechea Photo by Kara Brodgesell, courtesy of Ximena Vengoechea.

Ximena Vengoechea wants to teach us how to listen again with her new book “Listen Like You Mean It,” but is that even possible in a capitalist world?

At a time in which distractions seem to multiply by the second thanks to the omnipresence of screens and social media, and COVID-19 pandemic has isolated us further, we’re all having a hard time truly listening to one another and connecting. Silicon Valley veteran Ximena Vengoechea wants to change that with her new book “Listen Like You Mean It.” On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer speaks to the User Experience designer about her work at Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, and the role tech companies have had on our ability to listen to one another.

“I think some of how we lost [our ability to listen] has been the sort of moment that we're in, which is this culturally, politically divided moment, this technologically accelerated moment,” says Vengoechea, “where a lot of the core of why we might not listen as closely as maybe we should or we want to, comes down to actually really human behaviors, like getting distracted or having a strong emotional response to something.
“And this moment that we're in, where we have these sort of social media megaphones and we have these very active political voices, there's just more and more information, noise--however you want to see it--that can cloud out that desire to connect. The good thing is that because active listening is very human, we can tap into it again despite these circumstances.”

Scheer counters that part of the problem with the moment Vengoechea describes is rooted in profit-seeking Silicon Valley companies that design software and hardware to absorb our attention and feed on our very human desires with the ultimate aim of getting us to consume as much as possible. This, the podcast host argues, has had devastating consequences not just on our ability to listen or our wellbeing, but on the planet itself given that overconsumption is behind the climate crisis. This attention-grabbing model has also created obscene profits for tech barons such as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others, on a never-before-seen scale, fueling record global inequality.

“I think we lost the art of listening over the last century and a half because of capitalism,” says Scheer. “And when we didn't live in a capitalist society, because of totalitarianism. One way or another, we had state actors, we had private sector actors, basically trying to create static with advertising, with public relations, with the police state, with coercion, with propaganda. And listening really is obstructed by socially created, politically created noise.”

Facebook’s mission statement is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” and yet the founder himself admitted to Congress during a hearing that the company’s true aim is to “run ads.” Listen to the full conversation between Vengoechea and Scheer as the two discuss their differing views on why as means of communication proliferate, these same means may be making it harder to connect with one another.



Joshua Scheer